The World Before Her: Western modernity clashes with Indian traditions

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What happens if globalization splits a country into two very different cultures: a traditional one and more modern one? What if, in the same country, women are not equal to men? And what if women in both these cultures think they’ve found an opportunity to break free?

The feature-length documentary The World Before Her by filmmaker Nisha Pahuja depicts the two clashing worlds of young beauty pageant contestants fighting for the Miss India title and young female fundamentalists training to defend their Mother India from Western influences.

The Miss India contestants struggle against harsh criticism in a world that asks them to be absolutely perfect, while trying desperately to loosen their ties to the patriarchal society. The young women at a Hindu fundamentalist camp, on the other hand, already destined to become future wives and mothers, are allowed to taste a bit of freedom while fighting for their beliefs.

In this camp that has never allowed a film crew in before and is accused of promoting terrorism by the Indian government, Durga Vahini, an ambitious group leader, teaches young women to fight, just like men. She says she enjoys being in charge and even being feared by the younger girls.

Vahini doesn’t want to get married. She wants to stay in what she refers to as “the movement,” a Hindu fundamentalist movement that is known for using violence to keep modernity from threatening what adherents believe is the true Indian culture. But Vahini might not have a choice in that matter. Her father, who beats her up whenever she dares to lie, says she will get married. Besides this, the movement makes it clear that the sole purpose of women in India is to have a husband and children.

In a completely different world, Ruhi Singh, a girl from a middle-class family, prepares for the Miss India contest. She wants this title — she’s willing to do whatever it takes. In a one-month beauty boot camp leading up to the final contest, the models are kept under constant scrutiny. Beauty experts reshape their faces using botox and the contestants are put through endless training on the catwalk. In one of the training exercises, a white bag is put over each model’s head so that experts can judge her legs without any distraction. In other words, their faces and bodies have to look perfect. At the same time, these young contestents are criticized by traditionalists for displaying their bodies and following a Western ideal.

Pahuja draws us into two worlds that couldn’t be more different, but are at the same time oddly similar. Women in both worlds desperately try to fight for what they believe is a better world, while being aware of the flaws in their beliefs: the young fundamentalists are trained like soldiers, but in the end their sole purpose is to get married, have children and spread traditional beliefs. The models, on the other hand, use their beauty as a way out of poverty and societal pressure, only to be told what to do by people who view them as nothing but beautiful objects that need to be kept perfect.

The World Before Her does not judge. Rather, it portrays two very different paths taken by women doing what they believe is right in their search for independence.

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